Fishermen Face Unloading Delays After Fish Pier Packing House Tenant Departs

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Commercial fishing and shellfishing

The north half of the packing house, on the left, is leased by Red’s Best Seafood; the south half remains vacant. ALAN POLLOCK PHOTO

CHATHAM – When it comes to delivering fresh seafood, time is of the essence. But town officials are worried that, without some intervention, fishermen will find themselves waiting in line for hours to unload the day’s catch.

The packing house at the municipal fish pier has space for two companies to operate, receiving and packing the local catch for transport to market. But when Marder Trawling, one of the two fish buyers, departed last year, fishermen were lined up to unload with Red’s Best Seafood in the north bay. The south bay remains empty as commercial fishing ramps up for the season in the next few weeks.

Last year, boats were “stacked up down the harbor to get offloaded,” Harbormaster Stuart Smith said. He has proposed allowing fishermen to use the south bay to unload their own fish to their own trucks or buyers of their choice, much as is currently done on the outdoor dock at the fish pier’s south jog. Smith told the select board that he’s making the proposal only after the town was unable to find a new fish packer to lease the south bay.

“We had only one interested party, a local individual who later withdrew his bid,” he said. That vendor was concerned that he wouldn’t be able to use the space profitably. Given the low price of fish, buyers “are finding it difficult to justify the capital expenditures that they need to invest in that building, namely ice machines and forklifts,” Smith said. The vendor also had trouble identifying staff, reflecting the labor shortage “that every business is facing,” he said. While the harbormaster said he would still prefer to lease the space to a company, it makes sense to give fishermen the option to use the space to ease the unloading crunch.

“It certainly would be better than an empty bay,” he told the select board. Smith proposed spending about $20,000 from the waterways user fee (WUF) fund to install two fish hoists for fishermen to use.

Smith said it would be up to the fishermen to keep the facility clean, just as they’re required to clean up the south jog after unloading. He said he hopes existing staff in his department could be used to supervise the area.

“I’m willing to look at this as a pilot program to see if it works,” select board member Shareen Davis said. There is a larger trend among fishermen to find their own markets for their catch, rather than relying on a third party buyer, she noted. “The more opportunity we [have to] add value to our fishing fleet, the better off we are,” she said. Davis suggested having staff provide a progress report to the board in October.

Calling it “a creative response to a lack of a bidder” and to changing market forces, select board member Jeffrey Dykens said he favors the pilot program. “Have you vetted this with the fishermen?” he asked.

Smith said he had done so informally, but had not brought the proposal to the town’s four water-related advisory committees. For the plan to be successful, the equipment needs to be installed as soon as possible, and any delays could mean that the hoists are unavailable during the time they’re most needed, he said. “Time is of the essence.”

Davis said she knows time is tight, but urged the town to give the water committees an opportunity to opine on the project, since it involves the use of WUF funds. “We’re skipping over a process here,” she said.

Health and Natural Resources Director Robert Duncanson said he would notify the committees and invite them to hold special meetings to consider the proposal in the next week or two. With that, the select board unanimously authorized the pilot program.

The waterways advisory committee held a special session Tuesday to discuss the idea. Some members raised concern about the use of WUF funds for the project, and others worried that the south bay would not be widely used by fishermen.

“Any of the fishermen requested this?” committee member Ed Conway asked. No, chair Dick Hosmer replied.

Despite the concerns, the committee voted 5-0 to support the pilot project with Conway abstaining. The matter was set to go before the south coastal harbor management committee Wednesday, after press time.